The Room in the Elephant

This column first was published as the “President’s Message” in the September 2011 newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

The board of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists has been cleaning up after the party in Detroit. While washing glasses and emptying the trash, we share the usual mix of gleeful recollection of anecdotes and recriminations about disasters that could’ve been worse, just like any reunion or New Year’s shindig.

This conversation has continued longer than usual, out of necessity. Yet for feeling like the NSNC world is crashing in a bit, our data are looking pretty good. What color is the elephant in the room?

See over there, by the filing cabinet? That’s the national recession; if it’s a double-dip, where was the boomlet in the middle? Look here, on my desk, the print media are imploding (as are video media). Journalism will continue in some form, as will our leg of the profession — commentary and reflection — but individually we may not be able to wait for the toner to dry on what forms it will take.

Our numbers are stored in a trunk that we open in our bimonthly online board meetings. Also, our executive director hauls it to every conference: Each conferee gets the financial reports stapled to the agenda of the annual general membership meeting.

Those who studied them — especially our new officers (Vice President Larry Cohen, Treasurer Jim Casto and Membership Chair Rose Valenta in two-year posts and Social Media Chair Tracy Beckerman as a one-year member) — were struck by the numbers for the conference, membership, contest and financial.

We are asking if the conference is an endangered species. Can we afford to hold one in 2012? What aspects would have to change to avoid canceling our annual education and advocacy party?

If we lost money Continue reading

A Columnist’s Scrapbook

The following is my president’s column for the June 2011 edition
of the monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

The NSNC Conference, three days out of 365, is a highlight of my year. Apparently, I mustn’t have a life. Actually, I do have a grand life, and NSNC has been a huge part of it. So there.

The conventions are a blast. I have a huge amount of fun, meet extraordinary people I wouldn’t know otherwise, and learn a lot, narrowly and broadly, about writing. Every time.

Detroit will be my 13th conference, going back 20 years; I’ve had to skip a few. With that many, I’ve gathered five secrets of getting the most out of them. The tips aren’t secret, and they work elsewhere.

  • Know your limits
  • Set your goals
  • Be flexible to ignore your limits and goals
  • Don’t be shy
  • Take notes

This is a weekend workshop, not a cruise, though a few years have included boat rides. Which is to say, we’re the envy of other journalism groups so far as imparting solid knowledge amid informality and improvisational prankishness.

Besides the speeches and hijinks, you’ll get column material from our host cities you can’t have expected. You travel to NSNC conferences. For a vacation, call AAA. Paul Theroux said it better: “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been; travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

Limits. Stamina is a better term. These 60 hours pass quickly. As I want to get the most from them I tend not to stay too late in the hospitality suite. Goals: You come to our conference mainly to learn. You might gain more insights if you flex and stay past your limit in the suite, or Continue reading

Axis of Nice

The following is my president’s column for the May 2011 edition
of the monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Had a bizarre dream the other night, that World War III had started. I saw Dianne Feinstein, she having moved up from senator to secretary of state or vice president, holding a news conference. She announced the U.S. ambassador to Turkey had died in a suspicious plane crash.

A column might be found in that.

In writing down the dream, it became a “hmm note.” This was advice from the 1991 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, held in Huntington, W.Va. The convention, my first, had great speakers, yet the Hmm Note concept came informally from columnist Bill Tammeus, then of The Kansas City Star.*

We ended up at the same airport gate Sunday afternoon for our Midwestern flights. Bill was alone in a row of black chairs, writing a column. He was not writing notes in the narrow reporter’s notebook, nor an outline, but full paragraphs with a ballpoint. Some stores still sell paper and pens.

I asked him the novice’s question of how he got ideas. Bill said he tried to write down every time he came across something new or unusual, or when he’d think something that seemed clever, anything that would cause a “hmm.” Not as in, “Hmm, that would make a good column,” as might be expected, but simply, “Hmm, that’s interesting.”

Hence, Hmm Notes. Most would not pan out, but the rest become columns.*

Columns and blog posts can come from anywhere. The Hmm Note is just a good tool to keep in the writer’s toolbox.*

Fuel Up on Facts

How are Hmm Notes used? First, let them rest. Five minutes is enough for some, others can age years, cached in a filing system. Then, start writing and see where it goes.

While brainstorming, though, it’s not long before I need fuel. A sandwich, a coffee refill. Often I need to fuel up on facts, even for humor pieces.

Fuel now often starts with cautious use of Wikipedia, then Google for identified sources to cross-reference.* This can be the time for a quick phone or email interview with a specialist.

There’s other tasks involved in the writing: The choices made for frame or voice and attitude or tone make or break a good Hmm Note. Framing is my favorite tool.

As frames, Art Buchwald would drop a serious argument into a couple shouting on a disco floor, or two gents on a park bench beset by pigeons.* (This column is in a mirror frame. Am I disguising a political discussion as a how-to piece or am I using a political discussion to illustrate a how-to piece?)

Last, deadlines hang over us all, even bloggers: Jots often face obsolescence. Isn’t it silly now to argue over President Obama’s birth certificate?*

Here’s that brainstorm on my dream: Is the United States in World War III already? And would it be taking the role of Germany in the 1930s? Continue reading


The following is my president’s column for the April 2011 edition of the monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

A huge columnist controversy — looking to be the worst in years — began in mid-March, only it turned out to be so puny it ran its course in days.

It seemed a microcosm to our desperate economic times and the end of newspapers as we know them: A metro daily surrendered its independence to an advertiser; a columnist resigned in protest.

While that is what happened, the tempest in the teapot shrank to where there was plenty of room for milk and honey, which cooled the tea off, let me tell you. So sit over here and let me pour you a cup.

Chrysler Crisis

Scott Burgess is auto critic of The Detroit News. Sometimes he’s reporting, but in the first-person, making it a column. He analyzes trends, making him a commentator. He also critiques the new models. Most of the time, he’s reviewing, which shows how close the two genres often are. In a March piece he panned the new Chrysler 200, introduced with a stunning Super Bowl commercial narrated by hometown rapper Eminem, comparing the model with the renaissance of Detroit. Burgess noted technical specs with confidence and also sparsely for the lay audience, yet he was as colorful with similes as any Broadway critic.

A car dealer complained to the paper about the print version, and editors put on the brakes, toning down the Chrysler 200 column for the paper’s online edition. Burgess resigned in protest, and news of this went viral, Continue reading

Not Going Anywhere

The following is my president’s column for the March 2011 edition of the monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

An NSNC friend e-mailed links to farewell pieces that a couple of just-downsized columnists were allowed to publish. That opportunity isn’t always granted. Atypically, he didn’t add his opinion, which made my impression of this pair a surprise — mainly to me:

So what, I thought? How dare they?

If these fellows were mad, they didn’t show it. They had nothing but gratitude. Yawn. That and summaries of their column’s accomplishments, which read like resumes with verbs.

No one’s advocating a heated stick-it-to-’em. You can see examples of both by searching with the phrase “farewell column” in as well as Google.

There’s wisdom in not burning your bridges, though when you’re laid off, it’s the company pouring the kerosene and striking the match, not you. Still, a standing-tall, soft-spoken grace has more class than breaking something, or yelling or blogging an “eff-you.” Venting publicly is never therapeutic, it just films well.

Now that I’m reflecting on those links here at the end of the month, what comes to mind are Oscar winner speeches. That’s a little odd, because dropped columns may not be seen again and their writers often are trying to move into corporate communications, while Academy Award recipients often can work in their trade as many years as they wish.

Regardless, their palmed lists of producers, agents and costumers bore viewers, as do bullet points of favorite editors and which columns over the years got the most mail.

Dignity can be such a drudge. Thank-yous have a selfish Continue reading

Stances with Wolves

The following is my president’s column for the February 2011 edition of the monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

Columnists get labeled as opinionated. This was brought home again after the Tucson shooting. Americans saw on the air and online — come on, paper? — as many pundits as politicians (and rarely people with facts, like FBI spokesmen).

The funny thing is, few NSNC members are op-eddies. The society often honors political commentators, and their sessions are popular at our conferences, but rather few of us run on op-ed pages. We’re feature and metro, humor and kitchen-table writers. We have different ways of shouting to the world, “Look at me!”

Sheila Moss, the NSNC Web editor, in late January posted on Facebook a link to her 17-column series on Egypt from when she traveled there a year ago. She wrote of her collection, “It was not political nor intended to be. Yet, the basic elements of what the protestors want were apparent and are even more so in retrospect. I hope for the safety of the friendly Egyptian people who made us feel so welcome.”

She’s not presuming more than she thinks she knows. She was in the nation long enough to speak at least as knowledgeably as a number of op-eddies in the U.S. have been since the protests began in earnest in Cairo and Suez.

What I’d claim is we all do have opinions, personally and over the keyboard. Sometimes we are called to choose to defend them. We often defer, as bombast is not a home skill. But sometimes it’s best to cowboy up and hop on your camel. Continue reading